While there are plenty of producers who sing and singers who produce music, Natasha Kmeto is rare in that she owns both credits equally. From 2009's 9 onwards, the Portland-based musician has put both her voice and beats on equal footing, presenting herself as a singular package of studio talent and vocal prowess. Crisis, Kmeto's latest full-length, is the most clearly distilled presentation of her talents yet, serving as a slick vehicle for her varied songwriting. Over the LP's ten tracks, Kmeto moves from skittering beats to soul-saturated R&B while managing to maintain a relatively cohesive vision. The result is an album that's both structurally diverse and strangely unified in its aesthetic.
As one might expect from an album with such a title, Crisis is not a happy record. The record's smoldering closer, "Prideless," sees Kmeto draw on soul balladry for inspiration as she explores feelings of loss and disillusionment. Lyrically, the track is an emotional gut punch that sheds light on a failed relationship: "I tried to fight this/but now I'm prideless," Kmeto sings. Elsewhere, the artist manages to throw in small bits of levity, but they rarely stick. The woozy, crystalline "Morning Sex" is romantic, but wracked with desperation; "Deeply" has a anhedonic undercurrent to its love-song facade. Even when her music lacks discernable lyrics, Kmeto is capable of creating an emotion. "Brushstrokes" is a claustrophobic, techno-tinged track, while "Vodka Diet" whirls entropically like Kmeto has the spins. Though she has left behind the chopped production of her recent Dirty Mind Melt EP, Kmeto still has a knack for ratcheting up tension by editing herself down to nearly nothing.
That Crisis continues Natasha Kmeto's relationship with Pacific Northwest label Dropping Gems makes sense. While some of her newest tracks wouldn't be out of place alongside alt-pop artists like Jessie Ware or Charli XCX, Kmeto sounds most comfortable when she's embracing progressive electronic music closer to her label's sensibilities. The jazzy arrangements of her oldest work and the hip-hop influences found on last year's The Ache are mostly gone. Throughout the new LP, Kmeto often uses her voice as a tool right along with her array of analog synths and drum machines. For instance, the album's opener/title track sees Kmeto carefully manipulating her singing amidst spare percussion. Though she never allows more than a groan to escape over the arpeggiated synths, "Crisis" is saturated with feelings of foreboding and eroticism. The track serves as both an introduction to Kmeto's chosen palette and a good primer for the rest of the record.
At the other end of the spectrum, LP standout "Idiot Proof" is an outlier that recasts Kmeto as a full-on disco queen. With its Italo synths and housey vocals, it's a huge-sounding song that feels almost too big for the record. Much like The Ache's title track, "Idiot Proof" shows Kmeto can be as brash as she wants to be. While the record's other pop-oriented songs ("Morning Sex," "Deeply," "Prideless") present a mellower side of her vocals (though "Last Time," a stuttering bass-and-snare affair, is also a nice display), it's fun hearing her let loose.
Though Kmeto continues to mix genres and bring in new influences, Crisis has narrowed her focus. Given her steadily rising profile, the album will likely be the first time many people hear Kmeto's music—something she probably knows. This being the case, she has managed to do a fine job refining the things that made her first albums successful—complex production, emotive lyrics, soulful vocals—while creating a more coherent sound. It would be easy to imagine Kmeto producing more mainstream artists in the near future (she's already an accomplished remixer) or, perhaps, gravitating toward more overt pop herself. Crisis, though, still finds her polishing the things she finds most interesting, even though it's resulted in some of her most thematically dark material to date.